Any time I add equipment to my kit I like to find out how good it really is, so I try to “baseline” my gear to see the maximum quality I can get out of it under the best conditions. The results of this initial baseline test can then be used to measure how much image quality is lost when I move beyond ideal conditions. I’ve already talked about this here in Just Fooling Around, and also on my web site in the digital tutorial section. If you don’t know what your gear is actually capable of producing then how can you tell when you are giving up quality through sloppy technique (too high ISO, hand holding instead of using a solid support, wrong exposure, etc.) or if your gear is malfunctioning?
This Green Heron was photographed at a park near my office a week after I received my Nikon D200 – it was essentially the first chance I had to get out and take a few photos. Even though it was the lunch hour I had some luck with the light and avoided the harsh light and shadow expected at 12:32 PM when this shot was taken. The heron is down in a culvert and out of direct sun. I set the camera to the lowest ISO setting (100), locked down the movements on my sturdy Gitzo tripod, and was able to shoot at 1/60th second at f/9 using my Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S lens and matched TC20E 2x converter (my standard birding rig). These herons are masterful at standing perfectly still, and there was no breeze to cause problems.
The resulting image has more image detail and overall quality than can be seen in this tiny 720 pixel wide image, so here’s a section of the full image viewed at 100%. This detail represents just 4% of the total pixels of the complete image.
Whenever I start getting lazy and let the ISO creep up higher than I really need it to be I can look at this image to remind myself what I am giving up in image quality for that laziness.
If you are having issues with image quality, then it is worthwhile to step back to basics and see how good your gear might be. Set the lowest ISO available, put a quality lens on the camera and mount everything on a sturdy tripod, and photograph a stationary subject in good light. Shoot in raw and do minimal processing to the image. That’s your baseline. Then start departing from these ideal conditions one variable at a time (higher ISO, less light, questionable lens, converters, hand held, etc.) to see which step(s) rob the quality from your results.